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James Graham gets his storybook ending as St Helens claims the Super League title

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Roar Guru
28th November, 2020
16

Forget the heroics of Kyle Feldt and Johnathan Thurston in the 2015 NRL grand final or Darren Albert’s in the 1997 decider, the 2020 Super League grand final had just about the craziest finish you might ever see in any rugby league grand final, let alone any rugby league match.

For the sixth time since the turn of the century, and for the second consecutive year, St Helens are the Super League champions after defeating Wigan 8-4 in one of the most bizarre deciders in the competition’s recent history.

Both St Helens and Wigan went into the match as the two best-performing teams of the season, which, like the NRL season and many other sporting leagues worldwide, was suspended at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With Great Britain still under a strict lockdown as it attempts to curb a second wave of coronavirus infections, the match was played behind closed doors at KCOM Stadium, marking the first decider not to be played at Old Trafford.

For the most part, it was a dour and low-scoring affair, with the only score in the first half coming via a penalty goal from Saints fullback Lachlan Coote.

The first try didn’t come until with 15 minutes to go when Jake Bibby scored to put the Warriors up 4-2. Another penalty goal to Coote locked up the scores at 4-all, and the grand final seemed destined to go to golden point for the first time in Super League history.

Then, with the clock ticking down to zero, Tommy Makinson attempted a field goal, only for his kick to hit the upright.

You would not believe what happened next.

The ball then bounced back into the field of play, and Jack Welsby was the one to pounce, beating Wigan fullback Bevan French to score the match and premiership-winning try, but the players were forced to wait with bated breath as the try was sent upstairs for adjudication.

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Replays showed 19-year-old Welsby to be marginally onside, and on the motion of grounding the ball his foot was shown to be well inside the field of play, meaning the try was green-lighted.

Upon the try being awarded, the Saints players went into delirium as they celebrated going back-to-back for the first time in twenty years, as well as winning their sixth title since the turn of the century and their 15th title overall.

Already the crazy finish to this match has been compared to that of the 1997 ARL grand final and the 2015 NRL grand final.

Only the older league fans will remember that it was Darren Albert who scored at the death to give the Newcastle Knights their maiden premiership in 1997.

And just as recently as 2015, Kyle Feldt scored right on full-time to force golden point, during which, after Ben Hunt knocked-on from the kick-off, Johnathan Thurston potted a field goal to give his beloved Cowboys their first title after two decades in the NRL competition.

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St Helens’ victory ensured that James Graham, who returned to the club earlier this year after stints with the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and St George Illawarra Dragons in the NRL, retired on the best note possible, winning his second premiership ring with the Saints after also winning one in 2006.

In the intervention, Graham had suffered numerous grand final defeats, including twice with the Bulldogs in 2012 and 2014.

Fullback Lachlan Coote won his third premiership ring, and his second consecutive with St Helens, having previously been part of the Cowboys team that won their first NRL premiership in 2015.

Ironman James Roby, who has been playing for St Helens since 2004, won the Harry Sunderland Trophy (the Super League equivalent of the Clive Churchill Medal) as the best player on the field.

All up, 13 players backed up for the Saints from last year’s successful side, including former NRL players Kevin Naiqama and Zeb Taia. First-year coach Kristian Woolf also became a rookie premiership coach after previously coaching the Newcastle Knights in the NRL towards the back end of last year.

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Woolf joined the likes of Michael Hagan, Ricky Stuart and Trent Robinson who won premierships in their rookie years as top-level rugby league coaches anywhere in the world.

In contrast to Graham’s fairytale finish, it was a heartbreaking end for Warriors captain Sean O’Loughlin, who retired after racking up over 450 matches for Wigan in a career lasting nearly two decades. Players from both clubs formed a guard of honour as he left the field.

St Helens’ victory means they will face the Melbourne Storm in the 2021 World Club Challenge in a date still to be determined, with a February or March date not possible due to the late finish to the Super League season.

If the Storm were to travel to Great Britain for the match, this would have meant quarantining for a fortnight upon their return to Australia, potentially impacting the 2021 NRL season, for which the fixture was released on Thursday.

There are now plans to play the match later in the year, but in a way that it does not impact the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, which is scheduled to be played in Great Britain in October-November, following the conclusions of both the NRL and Super League seasons.

Back home in Australia, there are now just over 100 days to go until the 2021 NRL season kicks off, with the Storm to begin their premiership defence and their homecoming with a clash against the South Sydney Rabbitohs at AAMI Park in Melbourne on Thursday, March 11.